Traveler's rant a wake-up call

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Over the top whining by American blogger carries enough valid criticism for Vietnamese tourism authorities to act on


A group of tourists pass a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City with the help of two tourist assistants during the traditional 2012 Tet Lunar New Year. Experts have urged Vietnamese tourism authorities to improve services after an American blogger's rant about problems he encountered during a 2007 visit attracted widespread attention this week.

An American blogger's rant titled, "Why I'll never return to Vietnam" has elicited calls for a serious look at problems plaguing the tourism industry, particularly locals' attitude and behavior toward visitors.

However, many observers, especially foreigners, have also remarked that the rant does not reflect the entire picture, referring to their own positive experiences in the country.

Although the blog entry relates to a 2007 visit, "Criticism is necessary. We have to thank him because few people have said so. I think he was right in some points," said Nguyen Van My, director of Lua Viet, a Ho Chi Minh City's tour operator.

My said he was well aware of pick-pocketing, overcharging taxis and rip-off services at several tourism spots.

"I think he does think about us when criticizing because it helps us recognize the problems and find solutions," he said. "We are unable to avoid every problem. The important thing is the attitude toward [solving] the issue."

In the blog entry carried by Huffington Post on January 30, Matthew Kepnes said he had been "constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off and mistreated" during the three weeks he spent in Vietnam in 2007.

The article attracted a large number of comments from readers, travel agencies and tourism officials after Vietnamese newspapers reported the issue recently.

While there were more comments in Vietnamese papers backing Kepnes's criticism and urging Vietnamese tourism authorities to be more active in tackling the problems, there was considerable feedback against the article on Huffington Post.

Reader Linh Nguyen cited statistics from the Tripadvisor website to show a majority of visitors to Vietnam enjoy their trip.

"Now I understand that not everyone dislikes Vietnam like Matt does. I make this comment again: if you come to Vietnam to explore its landscape, its unique food and lifestyle, you will enjoy your trip," she wrote. "But if you just come as a writer/blogger who wants to dig deeply into its black sites to find problems (it is easy to find problems indeed) you will find your trip unpleasant. If the latter is the case, you should never return to Vietnam."

Reader Summer Nguyen said rip-offs affected both foreign tourists and locals.

"Maybe he did not encounter such problems in other countries and assumes that those places are good. I was ripped off by a taxi in Malaysia and forced to buy something that I did not like when traveling in Indonesia," Nguyen said. "A tourist should be vigilant and learn about others' experiences before traveling."

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Among his complaints, Kepnes said many street sellers constantly tried to overcharge him, including a bread lady who refused to give him back the proper change, a food seller who charged him triple even though he saw how much other customers paid and a cabbie who rigged his meter on the way to the bus station.

But David Elliott, an Australian who is seeking to invest in construction quality testing in Vietnam, seemed less upset with the scamming taxis despite being cheated by a cab driver last month in HCMC.

"I must admit taxi fares are probably too cheap and this probably results in a higher percentage of fleecing and poor practices.

"As tourists, we felt cheated for being so dumb. We were even told about this trick and just weren't on our guard," Elliott said.

"˜Quite an attitude'

In the article, Kepnes said one of the worst experiences came while he was catching a bus back to HCMC from the Mekong Delta.

He was buying lemonade from a vendor and the seller "turned to her friends, said something, laughed, then started laughing at me while clearly not putting in all the ingredients into this drink."

He said a Vietnamese American on the bus told him that she was telling her friends that she was going to overcharge because he is a foreigner. Kepnes said it was not the money that he was upset about, but the disrespect and contempt the vendor showed.

""¦ what I don't like is being treated like I'm not a person. I don't like being disrespected or cheated. I don't want to look at everyone and wonder if they are trying to cheat me. Every interaction doesn't need to be a struggle," he wrote.

Kepnes quoted an English teacher who had been in Vietnam for many years in Nha Trang, who told him that "the Vietnamese are taught that all their problems are caused by the West, especially the French and Americans, and that the West "˜owes' Vietnam.

"They expect Westerners to spend money in Vietnam, so when they see Western backpackers trying to penny pitch, they get upset and treat them poorly," he quoted the teacher as saying.

Peter Murray, a British expat who has been living in Vietnam for 18 years, said Kepnes carries "quite an attitude."

"I am not denying some of these problems happen, but why, in 18 years, have I not been ripped off in any of the ways he highlights? I strongly believe it is down to attitude," he told Vietweek.

"The guy talks about being ripped off in a bus station, says all bus stations sell lemon juice - well most Vietnamese I know would tell tourists not to go to bus stations," Murray said.

"Most backpackers on a budget arrive in Vietnam with a fear of getting ripped off, and with a pre-conceived mistrust of the people they expect to meet," he added.

Murray said the Vietnamese have their pride to uphold, and the tourist unfortunately often feels he is superior to the locals, an attitude which is probably most responsible for these cases of mistrust, he said.

He said inflation has prompted price increases and contributed to misunderstandings among tourists who thought they were being fleeced.

"I would be more inclined to be interested in the poor attitude of a lot of expats, who in fact seem to think they are 'above' the Vietnamese and have a colonial attitude," Murray said.

Doan Thanh Tra of the HCMC-based travel operator Saigontourist said it has been five years since Kepnes traveled to Vietnam and there have been many changes.

"But it does not mean what he experienced is not happening in many places in Vietnam, including big cities," she said.

She said Vietnam has natural beauty and a rich culture to attract tourists but local people should contribute to the country's tourism with their friendliness and hospitability.

Vu The Binh, Chairman of the Vietnam Travel Association, said it is important to consider tourists' comments, but added a country's tourism has both good and bad sides.

"Any tourism spot attracts two-way appraisals. Vietnamese people rarely criticize because they prefer praise and we should get used to criticism to improve ourselves," he told local news website VnExpress. "The [Kepnes'] story is an alarm bell for Vietnam tourism to take necessary amendments."

But Murray, the British expat, said he would not be preoccupied with the rant.

 "Overall, I would say that this is a lone backpacker, apparently with quite an aggressive attitude, and thus I would not be too worried about it."

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